WEP Dec 2022 – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

This is the last 2022 WEP story about Altenay, the Finder – my entry for the WEP Dec 2022 challenge The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

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Altenay gripped the teacup in her cramping fingers. She was so angry her hands shook, while a peaceful teahouse swirled with its usual activities. The waiters carried trays of teas and sweets. Cigar smoke and the scents of spices mixed in the air. Around the low tables, various-sized groups talked and laughed. Only she was alone in the teahouse.

That freaking pirate had had the gull to kidnap her! She had escaped him in the bazaar and skulked around the huge metropolis for an hour before landing in this cheerful place. The scoundrel would never find her here, but his brazen effrontery still irked her.  

He had stopped the coastal caravel she had taken home from one of her Finding jobs. He had demanded the caravel’s captain gave up the Finder he was carrying. Or else.

Of course, the captain had given her up, even though he apologized. Much use she had for his empty apology. He had sailed away then, the lout, leaving her alone with a shipful of cutthroats and their crazy captain. Who had then proceeded to ask her to Find him his beloved. Gah!

He didn’t have to kidnap her. He could’ve come into the front door of her office, like normal people did, and she would’ve taken his job. The accursed buccaneer!

Altenay sipped her tea and pulled out a small portrait, a little bigger than her palm, out of her satchel. She gazed at the young woman in the picture. The pretty girl stood half-turned in a doorway, her dark braids flowing down to her waist, her wide smile blazing in the sunlight.

“The first time ever I saw her face, I knew I needed to find her. I would do anything for her,” the blasted pirate had said. His weathered cheeks didn’t show any blush, not under all that beard, but his ears turned pink. “You’re a Finder. Find her for me, and I’ll pay you uncounted riches.”

Altenay winced remembering that conversation in the captain’s cabin. She remembered asking him where he got the picture. “It was loot,” he replied shamelessly and then locked her in his cabin ‘for her own safety.’

Altenay had had no choice but to comply with his wishes. She had unfurled her Finder magic, and it beckoned her to this sprawling city. Fortunately, she had been able to escape after they disembarked. The bustle of the port aided her dash for freedom.

She still had her money—the fee from her previous job. To her surprise, the deuced pirate hadn’t confiscated it. She could buy a berth on one of the coastal ships heading towards her hometown. She could wear a disguise, buy a different tubeteika in the bazaar, so the infernal pirate would never grab her again. But should she? Or should she find that woman first? Uncertain of the best course, she gazed at the portrait and munched her baklava.

Her Finder magic was clearly defined in the city, nothing like the vague dispersed yearning it had been at sea. Its pull was unmistakable, its direction unambiguous. What would she find at the end of that magic arrow? Would it be the previous owner of the painting? Or the artist who painted it? Or the girl who posed for the painting? What would she say if she did find the girl?

Altenay’s magic thrummed in her head, straining to zero in on its target, like a young hound before a hunt. Fine! She would do it. She mumbled a curse, left her unfinished tea, and stomped out of the teahouse. It wouldn’t take her much time. The razor-sharp edges of her magical pointer glinted: her quarry was close. Afterwards, she would go home.       

It took her another couple hours of wandering the twisting narrow streets, mostly uphill under the scorching sun. She was hot, tired, and irritated with herself, when finally, her magic zoomed in on the door of a small white house, surrounded by orange trees.

Altenay knocked. The woman who opened the door was the same one as the painting, but older, about Altenay’s age, paler, and not smiling. Her face was not as fresh as in the painting, but still lovely. She frowned at Altenay.

“Hi,” Altenay said. “I’m a Finder. Someone asked me to Find you from this portrait.” She extracted the portrait from her satchel.

The woman stared at the portrait. “My father painted it,” she said at last. “He sold it a few years back. I didn’t think I would ever see it again. Some foreigner bought it. Why was he looking for me? If he wanted another painting by my father… He died a few months ago.” Her face crimpled momentarily, but she took a deep breath and brought herself under control.

“I don’t think it was the same person,” Altenay said. “It was a pirate.”

The woman’s eyes rounded, and her lips opened, but no sound emerged.

“I’ll tell you the whole story. Can I come in? I’m Altenay.”

“I’m Gisele.” Gisele nodded and stepped back.

After Altenay told her story, Gisele commiserated with her. “That pirate was dastardly. Kidnapping you! The bounder!”

“Yes,” Altenay agreed. “And the caravel’s captain too. Giving me to the pirates as if I was… a prize.”

“He was trying to save his ship and his other passengers.”

“I know.” Altenay sighed. She couldn’t really blame the caravel’s captain.  

“Why did you seek me out after you escaped?”

“My magic likes to finish its searches.” Altenay’s lips twitched.

“Ah,” said Gisele. “It’s getting late. You should spend the night here. I’ll help you get on a ship home tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you,” Altenay said gratefully. “What are you going to do about that effing pirate? He did say he fell in love with you. He might hire another Finder. Do you have other family?”

Gisele shook her head. “I have nothing left here. Father died. My husband… is not worth talking about. He is not in the picture anymore. All I’ve left are my father’s paintings. Maybe I should seek out that pirate of yours.”

“The creep,” Altenay said with feeling.

“Yeah.” Gisele snorted. “But maybe he could change. He did say he would do anything for me. He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No. He didn’t allow any of his pirates near me. But I resent being kidnapped. On principle.”

“Sure,” Gisele said. “Maybe he would give up pirating for me and start making charter trips up and down the coast.”

Altenay sniggered. “You think?”

“I don’t know. He should pay you for kidnapping anyway. Do you want one of my father’s paintings as payment? Some of them are quite valuable. And it all happened because of me. Sort-of.”

“Maybe. I’ll look at them tomorrow morning, before I leave for the port.”

“Before we leave,” Gisele said firmly. “I’ll help you get away. You should wear my clothes, so the pirates wouldn’t recognize you. If they are still searching. After your ship sails, I might look for that jerk of a pirate. What is his barque’s name?”    

Gorgeous Girl,” Altenay said. “He said he renamed it after he got your portrait. It was Gorgeous Gorgon before.”

“Maybe he’ll rename it again, into Gorgeous Gisele,” Gisele mused.    

Tagline: Kidnapped by a pirate, the Finder can’t resist the pull of her magic.

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Where is the story?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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Recently I read a novella, Becky Chambers’s A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I actively disliked it. It has many glowing reviews on GoodReads, but it didn’t work for me. I decided to figure out why.

The narrative is superb, clean and lyrical, flowing like a quiet melody. The two protagonists are fascinating, definitely 3-dimentional. The details are rich and diverse. But the story – the most important aspect of any work of fiction – the STORY just isn’t there.    

To explain my reaction to this book, I need to tell you what it is about. The book summary sounds like an anecdote: a monk and a robot travel around the countryside while searching for the meaning of life. They can’t find any, because frankly, their lives have no meanings. They have no responsibilities and no purpose (beyond the above-mentioned search for the meaning of life). Nobody needs them, and they like it that way. Free and useless like tumbleweed, they roam aimlessly through the realm. They camp. They eat. They talk. They meet other people. The road stretches in front of them. Then the book ends. And no story manifests.

Every writer knows the standard story structure. The hero’s life is broken. He needs to achieve a certain goal to find a new status quo, but there are obstacles in his way. His struggles to overcome the obstacles comprise the gist of the tale. If he doesn’t succeed in his quest, disaster will strike. Those are all the necessary ingredients of a good story.

In the case of this book, the characters have no goals, and there are no obstacles in their way. They don’t struggle. Their lives aren’t broken. Nothing horrible will happen if they don’t find the meaning of life. They just stay on the road, chat endlessly, and contemplate the trees and the sky. Where is their story? I couldn’t see it. No wonder I didn’t like the book.    

What about you? Could you enjoy a book without a story? Did you enjoy this book? Tell me what you liked about it.

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WEP Oct 2022 – Thriller

I don’t usually write anything that could be dubbed a thriller, but I tried for this WEP Oct 2022 challenge, Thriller. My heroine Altenay, the Finder, lives in an imaginary country where magic is real. In this story, she is using her Finder magic to search for a fragment of a goddess’s cloak. Of course, when one is involved in the affairs of divinity, the search would turn scary. Everyone knows that.

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Altenay rode along the cliff road, the company of four guards and their grizzled captain behind her. The guards belonged to the local temple of Udacha, the goddess of luck. The head priestess of Udacha had hired Altenay to Find a relic, a fragment of the goddess’s cloak, stolen from the temple three days ago.

It wasn’t really a relic, Altenay thought wryly. It was probably just a piece of faded tapestry in a wooden frame, but the priestess had convinced her to accept this job. Now, Altenay fingered the old, broken wooden frame in her satchel, the frame that had held the tapestry for years, before the priestesses had replaced it last month. Her Finder magic buzzed in her fingertips, ready and eager, pointing… down.

Down? So far, it had been pointing true north, along the cliff road. Altenay grabbed her tubeteika to keep the brisk sea breeze from blowing her cap off her head. She sawed on the reins to stop her mount.    

The guard captain almost bumped into her. “You lost the scent?” he said irritably.

“I’m not a dog,” Altenay snapped. “My magic shows direction. It doesn’t track scents. And now, it points down. There must be a cave beneath this cliff, and what I’m seeking is in that cave. Right under our feet.”

They both looked to the right, towards the sea susurrating below the cliffs. “We’ll search for a way down,” the captain said resignedly and sent his guards to scout. By the time they found a perilous path to the pebbly beach below and discovered the cave entrance, it was dark.

The captain lit a lantern, but as soon as he and a couple of other soldiers approached the mouth of the cave, a strange arrangement of boulders unfolded into a rough stone statue. Vaguely human-shaped and animated by magic, it swung its rocky arms at the soldiers.

Altenay, behind the solders, gasped in fright and jumped back, her heart pounding. A golem. Her magic pulled her into the cave, towards the tapestry, but the golem was in the way. Drat!

The men ducked the statue’s unexpected attack and tried to fight their way in, but their swords had no effect on the moving rock. Sparks flew as the blades struck stone. The humans had to retreat. The moment they stepped ten meters away from the entrance, the statue stopped moving.

“A golem!” The captain spat a filthy oath. “We can’t fight this abomination. We have to go back.”

“Wait,” Altenay said. “Golems are not too bright. They remember one or two commands and a password to counteract them. We don’t know the password, but what if its command is to fight men with weapons. I don’t have a weapon, and I’m not a man. Maybe I could sneak by.”

“You mean go alone into that cave?” The captain frowned.

“The relic is there,” Altenay said quietly. She didn’t want to enter the cave at all, much less alone, but she didn’t see another way to retrieve the cursed tapestry.

The captain nodded. “We’ll stay outside in case someone human comes along. We could fight those. Be careful, Finder.”

Altenay nodded. Her heart in her throat, she grabbed a small unlit lantern and sidled towards the golem. Ten meters. Five. She tiptoed slowly and tried to breathe inaudibly, but her heart thundered, making her nauseous. There was a narrow space between the living rock, inert at the moment, and the cave wall. The soldiers behind her back kept a tense silence.

Shaking, she gathered her courage and slid past the golem. It didn’t try to stop her, but she didn’t inhale deeply until a bend in the tunnel hid her from its ‘view’. So far so good.

She lit her lantern. It threw uneven shadows around her, as she stomped towards her goal. Her magic tugged at her, while the shadows danced around, each one scarier than the last. Why had she accepted this stupid job? Her conversation with the priestess zigzagged in her memory.     

“The thieves left a message,” the old woman had said. “They want a ransom so high it would ruin us to pay. And if we don’t pay or go to any officials for help, they would prove that our relic is… not true. That it never belonged to Udacha. Such a rumor would ruin us.”

“The pilgrims would stop coming,” Altenay said dryly.

“Our temple is small. The pilgrims come here from all over the kingdom. They pray to Her for luck, and She always delivers. The pilgrims’ donations keep us alive. And the village outside too—the villagers provide food and shelter to the pilgrims. If the pilgrims stop coming, both the temple and the village would suffer.”  

“And is your relic true? Or is it all a clever ruse?”

The priestess’s gaze had never wavered. “The relic might not be true, but we perpetrate no fraud,” she said proudly. “Every pilgrim receives a charm, like this one.” She put a small pendant on her desk, a piece of gold-embroidered tapestry in a simple oval wooden frame. “It’s a good-luck charm and it is real. Most of our Sisters are low-level magic workers. As they embroider, they infuse their magic into the golden thread. The magic is small; it doesn’t last longer than a year, but it’s helped thousands of people so far. Take it. It will help you too.”

Altenay had taken the trinket. The little embroidered scrap resided in her satchel now. Perhaps its luck spell would help her extricate herself from this crazy imbroglio. She shoved her hand inside the satchel to touch the amulet, her fingers skimming the bulging golden embroidery. She felt its faint benevolent magic swirling around her, calming her down.      

Nothing to be afraid of in the cave, she told herself sternly. There shouldn’t be a second golem, should it? As soon as she pulled her hand out of the satchel, her fear spiked again. Her small lantern didn’t really dispel the darkness of the cave. What if there was a human guardian hiding ahead? How could she fight off an armed brigand?

Altenay took a deep breath to strengthen her resolve. Whoever had stolen the relic were cruel people. They preyed on the weak, and Altenay, the Finder, couldn’t let them win. She would Find the cloak fragment, whether it belonged to a goddess or a fisherwoman, and bring it back to the temple.

She tried to firm her steps, but her stomach churned with fear. She had to force her bile down. She wanted to run back to the entrance. The cold damp air of the cave made her shiver. When a flock of bats burst out of one of the side tunnels, she screamed.   

Her hand dived back into the satchel, but this time, she didn’t touch the little pendant. She touched the broken frame again. Her magic didn’t change directions. It still zoomed ahead, into the bowels of the earth. Altenay had no choice but follow, even though she couldn’t restrain the whimpers from escaping her lips.

At last, she came out of the narrow tunnels into a vast cavern. It housed a number of crates and cases, probably thieves’ loot, she thought sourly. Right at the entrance, on a rock shelf, lay a small wooden frame with a piece of tapestry inside.

Altenay uttered an obscenity of pure relief, stashed her prize into her satchel, and started back to the cave entrance. When a small snake slithered across her booted toe, she hardly squeaked.

A few days later, she heard in the market that a band of bandits had been apprehended and executed. Among their crimes were listed smuggling and blasphemy.               

Tagline: Finding a stolen relic takes guts.

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Roots of ideas

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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Writers are often asked: where do we get our ideas? The answer is: we get them everywhere. Here is one example. I was visiting my daughter in Toronto, and she took me for a day on the town. We rode subway. We dined at a restaurant. We went to a theater to see a show. And everywhere, we had to go up and down the stairs. Long stairs. Short stairs. Several steep flights of stairs.

Toronto is an old city. Not every subway station has an escalator (or only one escalator up, with the stairs parallel to it going down). And you had to search for an elevator, so we took the stairs. On one station, the stairs had 6 or more flights (an equivalent to a 3- or 4-storey house). The restaurant was in an old building. There was an elevator, but we didn’t find it, so we took the stairs. The theater was over 100 years old. There was an elevator, we saw it, but with a full house, there were too many people in the audience waiting for the elevator to the balcony. So we took the stairs.   

Eventually, I told her: “Today is the day of the stairs.” She laughed, but that was how I felt. And then I thought: what a wonderful title for a story: The Day of the Stairs. In my mind, the story started unfolding. It should be fantasy. It should be about an older woman, and magic, and of course, lots and lots of stairs. I’m going to write that story. And that’s where the idea came from: from the stairs in the old buildings I had to climb all around downtown Toronto.

Where do you get your ideas?   

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Whose story?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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SEPTEMBER QUESTION: What genre would be the worst one for you to tackle and why?

MY ANSWER: That is simple. Horror. I don’t read it. I don’t watch it. I don’t like it. Of course, I’d suck at writing it.

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I wanted to talk about my latest writing project, about story structure, to be precise. As some of you might already know, I’m a long-time participant in the WEP blog hop. Every two months, we write flash fiction on the theme provided by the WEP admin team. I usually write series – six flash stories a year, all about the same protagonist, but each story using a different WEP theme as an inspiration.

This year, all my stories are set in a fantasy world. My protagonist Altenay is a Finder. She finds things or people with her magic. Her clients hire her to find something or someone for them. And here lies my conundrum.

Usually, most story patterns – from ancient myths to modern science fiction – adhere to the same simplified blueprint. The protagonist’s world is in turmoil, for one reason or another. She needs to bring order back into her world, and for that, she must reach a goal: find a sword, kill a dictator, tame a dragon, etc. But of course, there are obstacles and problems in her way. As she solves her problems and overcomes the obstacles, her actions and her emotional upheavals become the meat of the story. The moment she achieves her goal, the story ends.     

In the case of my Finder flash fiction, no problem is her own. Her world is not in turmoil. The problems all belong to her clients. When someone hires her to Find a stolen goat or a lost child or a misplaced book, the gist of the story is focused on the client: why they need that object or person Found? What is at stake for them? Altenay only does it for the money. It is her job. So, each story, each journey of hers in pursuit of what was lost, is actually not about her at all but about her clients. Altenay, the Finder, is tangential to their stories, a tool, so to speak. Her travails and emotions are unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

I find this revelation disturbing. I didn’t plan it. I wanted my Altenay to be a real protagonist. I wanted the stories to rotate around her, but the entire series came out differently. Maybe if the stories were longer, I could’ve come up with some problems Altenay had to solve for herself, found some connections between her and the objects she seeks, some stakes of her own. But the very brevity of the stories forced me to concentrate on their most important aspects: why those objects must be Found. And those are all her clients’ stories. 

After giving it some thought, I decided that I’m not alone in using this particular format. It is often used in mystery novels: a sleuth is a tool too – a tool of justice. Agatha Christie’s Poirot rarely knows the murder victims, when he investigates the murders, so the stories that unfold are more about the murderer and his victim than about Poirot himself.

I suppose my Finder is a sleuth too, of a sort, even though I didn’t set out to write her that way. What about you? Has anything like that ever happened to you: the story formula you had conceived disintegrated during the writing process, and another one emerged unexpectedly?     

 

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WEP Aug 2022 – Moonlight Sonata

In my take on the WEP August 2022 challenge, Moonlight Sonata, my heroine Altenay, the Finder in a fantasy land, is searching for a musical instrument – a lira.   

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The music sang over the hills, the notes rising and falling, sparkling like tears. The moon, huge and low, shimmered over the horizon, as if commiserating with the mournful melody.

Altenay sat quietly. She wanted to weep from the beauty and sorrow of the chords. “That must be what I’m seeking,” she whispered after a while. She didn’t want the music to stop, but she had a job to do. This morning, the dean of the city music academy had asked her to locate a stolen lira.

“It is the Lira of Pangian,” the dean had said reverently. “The legends say gods created it. It sounds sublime. The old minstrel who owned it died, but before his death, a year ago, he donated the lira to us, to pass on to the next outstanding performer. It’s priceless. It can’t be sold, only bestowed: an award for excellence. We promised it as a prize in our music competition. The competition starts tomorrow, but someone stole the lira. Could you Find it?”

“Yes,” Altenay said. “I’m a Finder. That’s what I do, but I need something connected to the thing I seek, something that’s been in contact with it for a long time. Something that belongs to it.”  

“How about its bow?” the dean asked. “The old busker had used it for years. It is still in the case.” He nodded at the open leather lira case on his desk.

As soon as Altenay touched the bow, she knew she would find its lira. Her Finder magic unfurled eagerly. It felt faint but steady, slightly gray at the edges—the lira was some distance away.  

“It isn’t in the city,” Altenay said. “It’ll take me a while to bring it back. Maybe a full day.”

“As long as it’s here by the end of the competition,” the dean said.

“Why didn’t you try to find it before?”

“We didn’t know it was missing.” The dean’s face pinkened. “It was in its case, in the instrument storage. We didn’t have a reason to open the case.”

“So it could’ve been stolen months ago? Or last week?”

“Yes.” He winced.

Altenay stashed the bow in her satchel and fingered it occasionally to give her directions, as she drove her hired donkey cart. It was an uneventful journey through a peaceful countryside, but now, she finally arrived. Her Finder magic zoomed right on the dilapidated farmhouse in front of her.  

The moonlight camouflaged its general air of neglect, but nothing could conceal the broken roof over one wing or the weeds crowding the driveway. She snapped the reins to get the donkey moving again towards the house, while the music swirled around her, glittering and mysterious.  

Time to kill the music, Altenay thought regretfully. The lira was in this house. She stopped the cart, jumped off, and mounted the creaking stairs.

For luck, she touched her tubeteika and flicked the little beads decorating the fringe as she knocked on the warped door. Midnight wasn’t the best time for a visit, but someone was playing inside, obviously not asleep.

Altenay felt sorry when the music petered off. Her entire body clenched in regret. A moment later, the door jerked open. A tall young woman in the doorway had long dark hair. Moonlight framed her with a silvery aura. One of her hands still clutched a bow, similar to the one Altenay had used to guide her here.

The girl eyed Altenay belligerently. “What do you want?”      

“I’m a Finder,” Altenay said. “I was contracted by the dean of the music academy to find the Lira of Pangian. I’m guessing you’ve stolen it. You must give it back.”

The girl glared at her.

“Look,” Altenay said. “I don’t wish you any trouble. If you give it back, I won’t tell anyone about you. There won’t be any consequences.”

“I’m not giving it back,” the girl spat. “It’s mine. It belongs to me.”

“No, it belongs to the academy. The old minstrel—”

“He was my grandfather. He didn’t have the rights to give it away,” the girl said fiercely. “The Lira of Pangian has belonged to my grandmother’s family for generations. She couldn’t play as well as grandpa. She gave it to him to play, not to own. It was supposed to revert back to me after his death, but the old goat didn’t believe in women making music. Instead, he gave it to the academy. Do you know that only men could participate in their competition? A woman can’t even enter. My grandfather was a chauvinist. All those academy musicians are. The lira is mine. I can play it better than any of them.”

Altenay inhaled deeply. “I believe you,” she said. The music had been amazing, after all. “But I have a job to do. If I don’t bring back the lira, I’ll have to tell the dean where I found it. He would send the city guards.”   

“Tell them you couldn’t find it,” the girl said. “I can pay you.”

Altenay shook her head. “That’s not how it works,” she said. “They’ll ask another Finder. I’m not the only Finder in the city. Someone else would also come straight here.”

The girl’s mouth pressed together in a tight, angry line. “This lira is mine,” she repeated.

Altenay thought furiously. She couldn’t deprive this girl of her music. But she should do her job too. “Maybe there is a solution,” she said. “You’re a musician. Do you have another lira?”

“Yes.” The girl’s brow furrowed. “I have another instrument. A good one. I’ve played it since I was a child.”

“Could I see them both?”

“Come in.” Sullenly, the girl stood aside. She led Altenay to a large and mostly empty room. Near a window stood a low rattan table with a lira on it and a chair beside it. The light of a single candle reflected off the worn, scratched lacquer of the wood and the faded, almost invisible design painted long ago on the lira’s body.

In another corner, on a stand, was another lira. It was in a much better condition and lavishly decorated.

Altenay’s magic splashed one last time and dissipated, as it always did when she reached her goal. “That is the Lira of Pangian?” Altenay pointed at the table.

The girl nodded.

“Give me another one.” Altenay pulled the bow out of her satchel. “And give me your bow. You played with it on this other lira, right?”

“Yes. For years.” The girl looked bewildered but willingly accepted the exchange of bows. “The bows are interchangeable. The music is in the body of the instrument. But they will know it is the wrong lira.”

“Who will know?” Altenay countered. “How many people will know?”

The girl shrugged. “My old lira is good too,” she said. “I planned to keep it, but…”

“It should work,” Altenay said. “But you’d better leave the city, at least for a while.”

“I plan to,” the girl said.

To Altenay’s delight, the switcheroo worked. Neither the bow nor the lira inspired her Finder magic to go anywhere. They obviously belonged to each other, so her magic stayed quiescent.  

The dean was upset though. “This is wrong,” he mumbled.

“If you’re dissatisfied with my work,” Altenay said haughtily, “don’t pay me. Hire another Finder.”

The dean subsided. He did pay her. It made her ashamed of herself, just a little, to accept his payment, but overall, she didn’t regret her decision. Most of all, she wished to hear that girl play the Lira of Pangian again. At least once more in her life. The desire was sharpest on the nights of the full moon. Maybe one day, her wish would come true.  

Tagline: Moonlight and music combine in mysterious ways.

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Expected milieu, original solutions

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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AUGUST QUESTION: When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

MY ANSWER: In a contest between familiarity and originality I, as a writer, would always opt for originality. But of course, this statement is not absolute. If I’m working on a science fiction story, for example, I know I have to comply with the genre expectations: space travel, wormholes, aliens, or at least some super technology that doesn’t exist here and now. Not yet anyway. Even of the technology is very low key, like a hairdressing robot, it has to be there.

If I don’t do that, my readers wouldn’t recognize the genre and would drift away. Even more: if the story is included in a sci-fi magazine or anthology, the sci-fi element should appear on the first page, or better still, in the first paragraph. That’s what the readers want, and that’s what I strive to give them.

But in all my stories, the sci-fi ambience is only skin-deep – a framework, no more. All my sci-fi stories are personal stories set in a sci-fi world. My characters usually face problems that are not genre specific. Sometimes they solve those problems using the above-mentioned futuristic technology, and sometimes not. That is where I try to be original and inventive: in my characters’ problem-solving approach. Not just rushing in with laser guns, but employing a unique solution, something smart, unexpected, and with a minimum of violence.  

What about you? Where does your originality appear in your stories?

 

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My favorite book world

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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JULY QUESTION: If you could live in any book world, which one would you choose?

MY ANSWER: Most books I know – I read primarily speculative fiction – outline a world that throbs with a strife of some kind. Political intrigues. Wars. Rebellions. Oppressors. I wouldn’t want to live in any of those stories. Frankly, I want to live in a utopia, but alas, almost no speculative fiction novel follows its heroes into a world with no problems.

The most idyllic would be the small country of Welce from Sharon Shinn’s ELEMENTAL BLESSINGS fantasy series. It starts with Troubled Waters and includes 3 other books: Royal Airs, Jeweled Fire, and Unquiet Land. I wouldn’t mind living in Welce. Its ruler is a decent guy. It doesn’t have corporations. It doesn’t involve itself in an armed conflict of any kind. It doesn’t have slavery. It seems relatively peaceful and sort-of democratic – a good place to settle if you’re not ambitious. Which I’m not. So, Welce it is.

Here are the books:

Posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

WEP June 2022 – Please Read the Letter

Another story about Altenay, the magical Finder, as my answer to the June 2022 WEP challenge, Please Read the Letter. I seem unable to restrict myself to 1000 words. All my stories so far tend to extend to about 1300 words. ☹

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Chaos ruled the house in the middle of the University district. Half-filled boxes, chests, and cloth sacks littered the floor.  

“Hello, Mistress Syrenia,” Altenay greeted the young woman at the door. “Your message asked me to come here.”

“Yes, thank you for coming promptly, Finder,” the woman said. “Call me Melana.” She led the way into a former study or a library. The empty bookcases lining the walls reached up to the ceiling, but most books had already been packed into crates.  

“This was my father’s house,” Melana said. “He died and left me everything. But one book, the jewel of his collection, is missing. I want you to Find it. They say you can Find anything.”

“Mostly,” Altenay agreed.

The unoccupied shelves around her loomed dolefully. Bookshelves were supposed to have books or at least knick-knacks. Having lost their content, the shelves felt incomplete, almost grieving.

“What book,” she asked aloud.

“A bestiary,” said Melana. “The Amazing Beasts of Revocnava Island. It was my favorite. It had incredible pictures. I wanted to have it, the only one of my father’s library, but it is not here. I’m selling the rest.” Melana’s resentment shimmered in the air, augmenting the disconsolate atmosphere of the house.

“You father didn’t tell you what happened to the book? Before he died?”

“We were estranged. We didn’t talk,” Melana said stiffly. “But he knew I loved that book. Maybe he had sold it to spite me. I would buy it back, whatever the price. Just Find it.”

“Could you tell me more about the book,” Altenay prompted.

“I heard you need something, some connection to the book,” Melana said. “Another book from this library. Anything of my father’s.”

“No, anything of your father’s wouldn’t work. It is too generic. There were thousands of items here, all connected. I need something more specific. Something unique to the book.”

Melana’s lips twisted in self-mockery. “When I was a kid, before my father abandoned my mom and me, I tore a page from the book. I loved the illustration. Would it do?”

“Do you still have it? Yes, that would be best.”

“Wait.” Melana disappeared into the bowels of the house. She returned a few minutes later with a large leather portfolio. The bright red-and-teal dragon glared at them from the page, its every scale outlined in gold.

“A really astounding picture,” Altenay said reverently. “That must be a huge book.”

“Yes,” Melana acknowledged. “Do you have to take the picture?” She seemed reluctant to part with it.

Gingerly, Altenay put a finger on the page with its glowing paint. Instantly, her Finder magic sprang to life. It pulled at her, sharp as an arrow. It knew where the rest of the book was.

“I’ll bring your portfolio back when I find the book,” she promised.u

“When will you know?” Melana demanded.

“Give me a day or two,” Altenay said. She could probably find the book within an hour. It was close by, she was sure, for her Finder magic to be so crystal clear, but she always hedged her bets when dealing with clients.

She left Melana’s house with the portfolio strap across her shoulder. With one finger inside the portfolio, on the image, she marched where her magic pointed. The day was sunny, the hour still early, and her magic’s direction unambiguous. She was prepared to walk a while, but it only took a few minutes. Holding her ornate tubeteika, so it wouldn’t slip off her head, she lifted her eyes at the imposing colonnaded edifice. The University Library.

She hurried inside and followed the summons of her magic past the fiction section, past the alchemists’ room, past the memoir chamber, into a spacious hall called History and Geography. The bookcases inside stretched in rows to the far wall. Her magic blinked and dissipated. Argh! Somewhere in this huge room full of books was one book she was seeking. Irresolute, Altenay stood inside the entrance arch. How could she find Melana’s book here?

“Are you a new student?” someone asked behind her back.

Altenay whirled.

An older man with a bald head regarded her with friendly interest. “Are you looking for something specific? I’m the librarian here.”

“Hello,” she said. “I’m a Finder. I was contracted to locate a book.” She told him what she was looking for.

“Hm. A bestiary. We have some books donated to us from private collections. If you tell me the name of the previous owner, I might know where his book is.”

Altenay winced. “I promise confidentiality to all my clients.” But maybe she should disclose the name in this case. “Syrenia,” she said at last. “I don’t know his first name.”

“Professor Syrenia? He died recently.”

“Yes, him.”

“It’s a sad loss,” the librarian said. “He was a noted scholar, traveled a lot in his youth.” He shook his head. “But he didn’t donate anything to us.”

“My magic insists the book is in this room,” Altenay said. “Maybe he hid his personal book here.”               

“Why hiding it?” asked the librarian, his brow crinkled in puzzlement. “He should’ve told me.”

“I don’t know. Something to do with his daughter. She said they were estranged. I can show you a page from this book. Maybe it will stir your memory.” She opened the portfolio.

“Torn from the book,” he muttered with disapproval.

Altenay smiled apologetically. “She was young.”

“Still, should’ve more respect for a book. Let me think.”

He started walking. Altenay followed.

“I know the book. Saw it once when I visited his house,” the librarian murmured to himself. “I was a student then, took a class from Syrenia. That man’s knowledge was encyclopedic.”

He stopped in front of a case containing huge, illustrated volumes. His finger traced along the front of the case without touching the spines, traveling through the air like a magic pointer. The lower shelf. The middle shelves. The top one. The finger stopped.

“This book definitely doesn’t belong to us.” He pulled a ladder to the case, climbed, and took out a large tome with the embossed gold lettering on the cover. The Amazing Beasts of Revocnava Island. “Gotcha!” The librarian opened the book.

Attached to the front page, was a letter. “To my beloved daughter Melana Syrenia. Please, read my letter. It will explain why I had to leave you and your mom, even though I loved you both all my life.”

Hurriedly, Altenay lifted her eyes, embarrassed to catch even a glimpse of the letter addressed to another.

“Well,” the librarian drawled and resolutely closed the book. “It’s certainly not ours, but I can’t just let you walk away with this book. Professor Syrenia put the book here for a reason. I’m responsible for every book in this building. Tell Mistress Melana to come here.”

“Thank you,” Altenay said.   

A few days later, when Melana Syrenia came to pay for Altenay’s services, Altenay couldn’t restrain her curiosity.

“Yes, I read the letter,” Melana said. “He was cursed. He stole a priceless statue from a temple on Revocnava Island when he was young, and the priestess cursed him. The curse extended to his family, and when he realized that, he abandoned us. To remove the curse from us. He did it because he loved us, and I never knew. I was mad at him my whole life. I wouldn’t have read his letter if he just sent it to me. If it wasn’t connected to the book. If the book wasn’t hidden.” She sounded sorrowful. “Now, I suppose I’ll have to return the statue.” She sighed. “That darn letter!”  

Tagline: A letter could change a life … when delivered at the right time.  

Posted in Fantasy, Olga Godim, WEP | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Making book covers

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

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This month’s question is long-winded, but it could be condensed into a short query: what do you do if you can’t write? If I can’t write, which happens quite often, alas, I either read or make book covers. That’s what I wanted to talk about today.

My approach to creating book covers might be peculiar because I can’t draw. I have to use existing images from free image sites, like Pixabay, and enhance them until they show what I want.

Let’s take a look at one example. Here is the original image by https://pixabay.com/users/vic_b-6314823/

The image is large enough to manipulate safely. First, I cropped it to make the figure more prominent.

Then I removed the white window casements over the woman’s head. The universally dark bricks might be duller from the architectural viewpoint, but they would display the title and other texts better.

I changed the face to one of the portraits by https://pixabay.com/users/kaazoom-448850/ He is a wonderful portrait artist, and I like using his faces for my covers. I changed the hair – it is a blend of several different images. I changed the sword, made it more elaborate. It is also a composite of two different swords. To jazz up the whole a little more, I added the blooming shrubbery around the heroine. And finally, I introduced the title and author name. Here is the first version of my pre-made cover.

Still I wasn’t happy with it. It looks sort-of bland. I could’ve made it more playful by adding flying fairies instead of shrubbery. Or I could’ve cropped it in a different way and shown a woman and a dragon. Or a wolf shapeshifter. Or I could’ve added some magic sparkles. There are many ways the same original image could be transformed into different book covers, depending on the book’s genre and content. I decided to use a different background altogether.

Here is the cover I would use if I needed one – with the same woman:

I find it deeply satisfying that I can create art without being an artist myself. Artistic software is a wonderful tool, and I use the free graphic program Paint.net for all my artistic needs.

What about you? Some of you make book covers too. How do you approach the process? What tools do you use?     

 

Posted in art, book cover, Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing | Tagged , , | 21 Comments